Determining the Meaning of Words and Phrases | Reading
Think about your favorite song. How do the words make you feel? What images do the words bring to mind? Writers use words in different ways depending on the message they’re trying to convey. You will need to be able to determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, as this is a medium emphasis topic on the TASC Test Assessing Secondary Completion™ Reading subtest.
Writers can use:
- words with a figurative meaning that differ from their literal meaning.
- words with a technical meaning when they write about a specific subject area.
- words with a positive or negative connotative meaning, to show how they feel about the topic.
Texts rarely outright define complex or technical terms. Think about a word’s context, or the text that comes before or after it, when trying to find the meaning of a word or phrase, according to Curriculum Associates.
Context refers to the words in the same or surrounding sentences. These other words and sentences can help you figure out the unknown word’s meaning. Sometimes writers use definitions or examples to help readers define unfamiliar words.
Analyzing Words throughout a Text
Analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of certain words over the course of a text is another important skill needed for the TASC test. Consider how a president might use the term “traitor” over the course of his speech, giving multiple examples of what makes someone a traitor.
- “He betrayed America’s trust.”
- “His duty to the country was false.”
- “He was proven guilty of committing treason.”
By the end of his address, you would be able to understand the meaning of the word “traitor” as the president intended.
As you study examples of how an author uses and refines the meaning of a word over the course of a text, consider The Federalist No. 10, an essay by James Madison.
The Federalist Papers argued for the ratification of the United States Constitution. No. 10 addresses the question of how to guard against "factions" with interests contrary to the rights of others or the interests of the whole community. Read through the statements below, taking special note of the word faction to find the meaning:
- “Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.”
- “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
- “There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.”
Based on these three indirect definitions, how would you define faction? We think the second example summarizes the three meanings the best: a number of citizens. You may have found yourself needing to simplify the context to fully understand it. Through further analysis of the text, grasping what the word faction means is made easier.
Reading study tip: be a patient reader, and recognize that a complete definition requires a complete reading of the text.